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5 Jul, 2012

Bengali Film Awards Bash in Thailand Fumbles With A String Of Indian “Faux Pas”

PATTAYA, Thailand — An awards ceremony held on July 1 to celebrate the best of Bengali cinema instead collapsed in a string of self-confessed “faux pas” to the extent where one of the co-sponsors from Kolkata TV publicly berated the Master of Ceremonies to find a more professional person for next year’s awards.

Amidst continuous mix-ups, errors and verbal gaffes, one of India’s leading actress-cum-director Aparna Sen left before accepting her award. Barely 100 people remained in the 2,000-seat Alangkarn Theatre when the curtain fell on an excruciatingly long four-hour exercise that was otherwise marked by some world-class performances by Thai and Indian entertainers.

The Kolkata-based International Bangla Film Academy (IBFA), seeking to go down the same path as the much better established International Indian Film Academy (IIFA), decided to take its annual awards offshore in a clear attempt to gain global stature and compete against the Mumbai-dominated Bollywood. Bangkok was chosen as the inaugural venue. The fact that one of the nominated Bengali movies “Bye Bye Bangkok” had been shot in Thailand and was a nominee for two of the awards gave the choice a “local angle.”

Partial support

The Tourism Authority of Thailand offered partial sponsorship support. The event, in principle, helped meet some of the TAT’s main marketing objectives. Indian visitor arrivals to Thailand are booming, but Kolkata generates less than 17% of the traffic, well behind the top source-cities, Mumbai and Delhi. Three airlines each operate daily Kolkata-Bangkok flights. A little more marketing exposure, especially via TV in an event related to the hugely popular film industry, had the potential to generate more consumer awareness for Thailand. The Alangkarn theatre, an added attraction not far from Pattaya, could do with the added exposure. As the Indian film industry is full of high-value individuals, with a huge word-of-mouth marketing impact, it appeared that all the ducks were in a row.

At a Press conference last February in Bangkok, Mr. Tarakeshwar Singh, managing director of JetSetters, the destination management company which organised and managed the event, announced the signing up of Thai singing sensation Tata Young of “Dhoom Machale” fame. Leading brand-name Bengali film celebrities such as Aparna Sen and Gautam Ghose extended their support.

Such personalities do not lend their names in vain. If all went well, the Bengali movie industry would get its day in the sun. Thailand would get an avalanche of marketing exposure and future business. JetSetters would get fame and perhaps some fortune. In theory, it was a win-win scenario.

Not according to plan

But the event did not go according to plan. That became quite clear from the very first few minutes. The show opened well behind schedule with barely 500 people in attendance. The opening session itself saw a number of gaffes. The Thai minister of culture and a number of others were invited up on stage. The minister, the portly wife of one of the influential Thai politicians, stood there doing nothing, and then turned visibly ashen when asked to say a few words, which she was clearly unprepared for.

Then, in yet another protocol gaffe, the minister was asked to present a bouquet of flowers to Rituparna Sengupta, a prominent Bengali actress who was to be the “Face of the Event.” The M.C. grandiosely announced this as being a first “because it is normally the other way around – the actress has to present flowers to the minister.” Not surprisingly, the minister left as soon as that opening part of the ceremony was over.

Although Ms Sengupta had been at the mike when the event opened, Mr. Tarakeshwar Singh, took over as full-time M.C. In his opening remarks, he acknowledged the first faux pas, saying that if the “Americans can do it, we can be excused for making them, too.”

Dig at the Embassy

In seeking to praise his local hosts, Mr Singh took a dig at the Indian embassy in Thailand. As he put it, the embassy had not been of much help in fixing up a pre-event preparatory appointment with a local dignitary. It was Mr. Suthikorn Jearpaitoon, Managing Director of the Alangkarn theatre, who got it done “in just 10 minutes.” No-one from the Indian mission in Thailand was present, which was surprising because promoting Indian culture and talent is very much part of the Thai-Indian strategic brief.

(In response, Dr Jaideep Nair, Counsellor at the Indian Embassy wrote: This Embassy has at no stage received any letter or email or phone call from Mr. Tarakeshwar Singh or any of the organisers informing us regarding the planned event or seeking any assistance from the Mission. The Embassy is always ready to collaborate in and assist with events intended to promote Indian culture in Thailand, and has consistently been doing so over the years.)

Mr. Singh went out of his way to raise the credibility of the awards-selection process, claiming that it was the first time that no outside lobbying pressure had been exercise. The whole thing was conducted in the form of an online poll and had the support of major Bengali industry stalwarts. It was a very, very transparent and non-partisan process, he said. However, he added, it also  meant “there could have been occasions when the poll did not go in favour of those who might otherwise have been seen as being deserving” of an award.

Once the presentations began, the lack of detailed planning became even more clear.

In the beginning, there were a series of little oddities – nominees and award winners being absent, an eyebrow-raising remark or two. But then the trickle became a tide of mix-ups and mistakes. One upcoming young actress, Ms Nusrat Jehan, was invited to join one of the presenters on the stage to bring “glamour” to the nomination. The M.C. then tried to indulge her in some awkward banter, which caught her off-guard. Later, she herself won the “Promising Face Of The Year” award but did not show-up to receive it. She later told one of the prominent Indian film-industry journalists that she had stepped out for a glass of water. As no-one knew that at the time, it made it look as if she had done a no-show.

Wrong award

Mrs Aparna Sen and her husband were invited to the stage to present an award. She opened the envelope and said it was for the wrong award. That caused a huge round of confusion which then had to be twice corrected as the nomination clips were not in sync. Another recognised legendary Bengali Indian actress, Mrs Suchitra Sen, was given a Lifetime Achievement award. She was absent and her daughter Moonmoon Sen and grand-daughters, all well-known actresses, couldn’t come to receive it because a few moments earlier, they had been asked to leave for the post-events dinner. In an awkward moment, Mr. Singh asked if anyone was available to pick up the award. Finally, someone did.

A representative of Kolkata TV, the other co-sponsor, who was called up to the stage to present an award, twice berated Mr. Singh and told him to find a more professional M.C. for next year’s awards. Mr. Singh sought to cut him off the first time, but he repeated his advice as he left the stage. He got a round of scattered applause.

The way the awards were presented lacked consistency. Some award winners made a statement of thanks. Others just walked up, took the award and walked off. Most of them were badly dressed. Mr. Singh mentioned “faux pas” at least three times in his banter. Mr. Srijit Mukherji, winner of the Best Director Award, publicly referred to the evening as being one of “mix and match” marked by “some great moments and some depressing ones.” Asked what went wrong, he later told this editor that the event had not been scripted in detail. Another award-winning producer said there had been no rehearsal either.

Otherwise good evening

All these avoidable gaffes, which one TAT official attributed to an apparent attempt to cut costs inspite of an Indian Rs 10 crores budget, detracted from an otherwise good evening full of great music and powerful performances by both Thais and Indians. In addition to the brief glimpses of the tremendous creativity of Bengali cinema, two young Indian singers, June Bannerjee and Moina Maitra, provided ample evidence of the incredible Indian talent waiting in the wings.

The Thais, however, stole the show. The Alangkarn theatre’s performances were world-class as was Tata Young’s. All the Indian stars and performers were bowled over by the Thai hospitality, services and professional management at the infrastructure support level. Several industry people had brought their families along and took time off to enjoy Pattaya and its environs. Mr. Srijit Mukherji hailed the Thais in his remarks during the event.

Although the sheer power of word-of-mouth marketing will ensure quality-cum-quantity business from Kolkata to Thailand, the TAT still has to evaluate what the Thai taxpayers got for their money. TAT officials declined to specify their level of support, saying that it was much less than what they were asked. The event may be featured on Kolkata TV but much will depend on how they edit out the faux pas. Either way, a lot of damage control now has to be done.

There is probably a deeper story of personal conflicts and political infighting behind the faux pas which is beyond the reporting scope of this news website. Next year’s event is scheduled for Cairo. The Egyptians will need to ensure that the faux pas of the event in Thailand are not repeated.